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MU Extension course helps new farmers

Tuesday, April 29, 2008 | 5:16 p.m. CDT; updated 6:24 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Alex Nuckolls, 6, watches his father, Matt Nuckolls, while their barred Plymouth Rock hens and Reggie the black Australorp rooster move in on some corn on April 18 near Licking. After an improvised explosive device in northern Afghanistan ended his 10-year Air Force career, the military veteran and his wife, Leann, purchased 20 acres in Texas County. They intend to start a pasture poultry operation.

LICKING — Traumatic brain injury caused by an improvised explosive device in northern Afghanistan ended Staff Sgt. Matt Nuckolls’ 10-year military career.

With two small children to support and no immediate disability payments, the Air Force veteran and his wife, Leann, decided to move from Colorado Springs to Texas County, live off the land and become commercial farmers. The learning curve was steep.

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“If you grew up around here, you knew who to talk to. I didn’t grow up around here,” Nuckolls said.

So Nuckolls went back to school, joining a British engineer, a retired sheet metal worker and a nurse interested in sustainable farming in a MU Extension course for aspiring farmers.

The Grow Your Farm program is modeled after a more established counterpart called Farm Beginnings that began a decade ago in Minnesota, with offshoots expanding to Illinois and Nebraska.

Students in the inaugural Missouri program met weekly at the Phelps County Extension office in Rolla, poring over thick binders stuffed with sample business plans, legal case studies, marketing advice and more.

The program also links newcomers to established producers in their communities who can offer advice and war stories, or even mentoring relationships.

“It’s kind of like parenting,” Debi Kelly, program organizer, said. “You don’t know what to do, so you go to a friend or a sibling. It’s the sharing of ideas.”

Nancy and Greg Rasmussen raise broiler chickens on 65 acres outside Lebanon in Laclede County. Five years ago, Nancy Rasmussen participated in a Farm Beginnings course while living in Wisconsin. The former housekeeper and her husband — who continues to work for the local telephone company during the day — now have a successful farm, providing hormone-free poultry to area farmers markets and natural food stores.

Nancy Rasmussen said she was happy to become an instructor in the Missouri program when asked by her local extension agent.

“It saves them from learning by trial and error,” she said. “You’re talking with people who have actually tried sustainable farming. They can hook you up with networks and resources.”

Alan and Liz Northcott knew little about agriculture when they decided to relocate from Crown King, Ariz., two and a half hours north of Phoenix, to a 120-acre alfalfa farm near Lebanon. A friend’s recommendation served as a referral to buy land in southwest Missouri.

“It was kind of like, ‘Here we are; we’re farmers,’” Alan Northcott said. “We were totally green. We had seen farms. That’s about it.”

The Northcotts’ initial farming venture remains modest — they’ve earned about $5,000 in their first year, paying a ranch hand to tend the alfalfa crops while hoping to eventually branch out and grow garlic or perhaps sunflowers.

Northcott, who moved to Arizona from England in 1992, continues to work as a freelance technical writer and an online day trader. The new farmers’ course not only helped the couple learn the basics, it also reinforced the aspects of farming they hope to avoid.

“We’re not interested in livestock,” he said, noting a seminar session on raising cattle. “We don’t want to get up at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

For Nuckolls, the nascent pasture poultry operation — he owns 19 barred Plymouth Rock chickens, a cold-weather bird hardy enough to withstand Ozarks winters — represents an escape from his former life. The soldier turned war protester beams when talking about his 6-year-old son’s ability to herd the birds into their hen house each night.

He’s not completely unfamiliar with southern Missouri. His father was twice stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, and Nuckolls briefly attended what was then the University of Missouri-Rolla before enlisting.

His plans are modest — the 20-acre tract he purchased last year still needs work, and his wife has both an office job and a Web business to help make ends meet. But the prospect of starting over, and tapping into the resources his new neighbors can offer, provides hope.

“I’m discovering opportunities I didn’t know I had,” he said.


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